The purpose of this study was to explore several of the ethical implications of behavior analysts conducting or not performing functional assessments prior to implementing behavior modification techniques. The study focused on these implications in cases of self-injurious behavior in particular. The writers argue that basing treatment of self-injury on results of a prior functional assessment is more ethical than an eliminative behavior modification approach. They support this conclusion through several main points.

Persons with self-injurious behavior are entitled to effective treatment. Since behavior modification strategies alone do not often address the underlying causes of the behavior problem, simply performing interventions to reduce the behavior could have unpredictable effects. Often, new behavior problems will emerge to take the place of the eliminated behavior making this technique very ineffective.

In most cases, the application of the least restrictive treatment alternatives is favored. Because they involve new behaviors being learned to replace the problem behavior, approaches based on a functional assessment would be considered constructional rather than eliminative. Treatment based on a functional assessment is by definition likely to be less restrictive and thus ethically preferable.

It is important that the treatments selected lead to socially valued outcomes via socially valued means. Less restrictive techniques are generally considered to be more socially acceptable. However, there have been no strong conclusions as to whether interventions based on functional assessment are perceived as more socially acceptable by consumers than interventions applied without a prior functional assessment.

Hastings, R. P. & Noone, S. J. (2005). Self-Injurious Behavior and Functional Analysis: Ethics and Evidence. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilites, 40, 335-342.